There is a reason why the idea of an eighty-year-old man marrying a twenty year old makes our heads turn and can even make headline news. There are certain connotations and subtleties to the situation that we just cannot as a society ignore. The main reason is referenced whenever someone inevitably makes the comment, “he’s old enough to be her father.” This observation goes further than just the uncomfortable thought of the man’s child some years earlier playing with his future wife in the sandbox. It actually taps into the unspoken fear that everyone thinks but no one wants to admit to thinking: “what if she really is his daughter?” This can be traced all the way back to the influence of ancient Greece on western civilization and how the story of Oedipus has made its way into our collective subconscious. Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest and Max Frisch’s Homo Faber are two examples of novels in which this fear of an Oedipal situation is addressed.
In Effi Briest this fear is only hinted at and is not necessarily even a major theme of the novel. It is however impossible to ignore it, particularly at the beginning of the novel when the reader is first given an explanation of the situation between Effi, Innstetten, and Effi’s mother. As soon as it is made clear that Innstetten was once romantically involved with Effi’s mother and that their relationship was around the time of Effi’s birth the immediate reaction is to wonder if whether Innstettan is about to marry his own daughter. This however is never addressed further in the novel and is presumably only there to reference the difference in the two’s maturity level. In Homo Faber on the other hand it is one of the major plot points of the novel. In this book we actually find out that Sabeth is in fact the protagonist’s daughter and the fear of somehow falling into this Oedipal scenario is actually realized.
Even though the latter situation turns out to be worse than the former, both force us to go back to the source and consider what it is about Oedipus that really makes so uncomfortable. It is not something that necessarily defies nature. Objectively speaking if a male and a female decide to try and procreate, what does their previous relationship to each other really matter as long as they are keeping the species alive? I believe that in order to understand our distaste for such a scenario we have to go back to the original story in Oedipus. In the play, Oedipus has to struggle with whether or not he is responsible for his actions because of the fact that these things have been fated to happen. That is a universal problem that we all have to face. Everyone wonders how much of their life and their little world is under their control and how much is controlled by the universe, God, fate or whatever you want to call it. When one sees a couple in which one partner is old enough to be the parent of the other partner, then subconsciously one is facing his or her own fears about fate.